Britain: Kate Hudson on Left Unity, People's Assembly

Kate Hudson.

July 8, 2013 -- Green Left Weekly/Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal -- Kate Hudson is a veteran British left-wing activist and former chair of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament. Hudson was a candidate for the left-wing Respect party in 2012's Manchester municipal by-election, but stood down after Respect leader George Galloway made “unacceptable and unretracted statements about the nature of rape”.

Since then, Hudson has joined other left-wing activists, including film maker Ken Loach, in pushing the Left Unity initiative for a new left-wing party, which has received support from thousands of people across Britain.

Green Left Weekly's Jody Betzien spoke to Hudson after the huge People's Assembly in London, which brought together more than 4000 people to plan to a campaign against the brutal austerity of the British government.

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The People’s Assembly was a clear success with more than 4000 people attending. What was the significance of the event?

A will from many sides to take forward a coherent national anti-austerity movement in Britain. By which I mean the level of trade union support for it indicates a top level commitment to it. And also, of course, the commitment and enthusiasm from grassroots campaigners as well.

Over the past few years the most dynamic part of the anti-cuts movement has been the local campaigns in defence of local services. Things like occupations of libraries, defence of hospitals and campaigns against punitive inspections of people receiving disability support payments. These have been the life-blood of the movement.

But we have been devoid of any effective national way to draw that together to enable coherent pressure and alternatives to be put as well. We hope that with the People’s Assembly having attracted so many people, that the possibly is now there to give more direction to the campaign.

Both Frances O'Grady (general secretary Trade Union Congress) and Len McCluskey (general secretary Unite the Union) made comments at the assembly committing the union movement to preparing for coordinated strike action. What is the significance of those calls?

For about the past year the question of coordinated strike action has been very much under discussion in the unions. In fact at the TUC congress last September there was a resolution that was overwhelmingly passed which calls on the TUC to look into the practicalities of a general strike.

As you may know there has only ever been one general strike in Britain in the 1920s, which was a disaster. The term general strike is generally something that is bandied about by very small ultra-left groups and has been generally frowned on as absurd. So the very fact that talk of a general strike or coordinated strike action is being discussed by union leaders is something that's very significant in itself.

Not least because since the 1980s the Thatcherite anti-union legislation has made the circumstances under which one can take strike action very narrow. It is hard to have a "legal" strike in Britain even if it is on questions of pay and conditions.

So working toward coordinated strike action is difficult but something union leaders now say is something they are willing to countenance. It fact Len McCluskey said they were prepared to break the law to take strike action, so that raises the question of political strike action.

The question there of course is, that the government response would include sequestering of union assets and so on. So there may be a high price to pay for breaking the laws, so it's a question of how many unions could do that collectively.

The austerity cuts impact is so severe now that unions are being forced to reconsider their past practice.

With the major parties' including the Labour Party's support of austerity, the movement faces a big challenge heading towards the next election. How do you think the movement can tackle this challenge?

This is a big question that is much debated. Historically, of course, working people have looked to Labour to defend them. Of course the development of the welfare state was under the post-war Labour government, and the party was founded by the union movement so people have expected Labour to stand up for ordinary people.
But unfortunately over the past 20 odd years Labour has moved further and further to the right and embraced neo-liberal economic policies as have all the social democratic parties across Europe.

Whereas across Europe in many countries you have a left party in that space to the left of Labour, there is no such viable party of any substance to the left of Labour which can give political representation by and for the working class.

Now with Labour embracing the Tory cuts and saying they won't reverse them many people feel that the time has come, no matter how difficult it may be, to work to found a new party of the left.

There are many on the left who also say that can't happen, the conditions don't exist in Britain; we've got no alternative but to reclaim the Labour party. Some of those discussions came out at the People’s Assembly. But there is a strong trend and a growing initiative toward the founding of a new left party in Britain.

Is there pressure within the anti-austerity movement to direct energy leading to the next election to campaign for the "least worst" option of the Labour Party? For example focusing on campaigning in marginal seats.

Yes there is. I suppose the situation is because the Labour party was founded by the unions and has always been seen as the party of the organised working class there was never for example the development of a big Communist party in the same way that they developed across Europe.

The Labour party has occupied a specific space and trade unions are affiliated to it. So the connection to organised Labour is stronger than other Europeans social-democratic parties. That is one of the historic obstacles to the development of a left party.

So many people do feel that pressure needs to be applied to Labour to turn it left because there is no hope to build a left party.

If it was possible to turn the Labour party to the left that would be a very positive thing but people now have lost patience with that argument. There have been projects to reclaim the Labour party for the last couple of decades or so and it hasn’t worked. And that is without even exploring the questions of what has been wrong with the Labour party all along and the partial nature of the post-war reforms.

I think that discussion will continue and there is no way round that but so many people new feel that Labour cannot be recovered and that the situation we face is so terrible, possibly on the road down to the capitalism of the 1930s, that we have to try and do something to reverse that.

We can't wait for the least worst option because Labour, the Labour Party of 2013 is a pro-austerity party. That is the nature of where capitalism is at at the moment and Labour is a party of capitalism.

It also hinges around a different view about the nature of the austerity policies. Some people say austerity isn’t working as if the government’s genuine goal is to try and reduce the deficit but they have chosen the wrong way of doing it.

Others contend that their goal is in fact not to reduce the deficit but to rearrange the economy and society to trash the welfare state which they didn’t want to concede in 1945, reduce wages and increase profits. This issue was not addressed or explicit in the People’s Assembly statement; that is another area of contention in the discussion as well.

What specific action plans were agreed at the assembly?

We have planned a demonstration in Manchester on September 29 at the Conservative Party conference and November 5 will be a day of direct action. Plus the establishment of local People’s Assembly groups.

An unstated issue there is, if the focus is on the Conservative Party conference, what about our message to Labour at their conference; they may well be the next government in two years. That may not be explicit in the public materials about theAassembly but is is part of the discussions. As local People’s Assemblies develop they will address all of these issues

Next year there will be a national recall of the assembly.

How should the British left respond to the strong results for the far-right UK Independence Party at the recent local elections?

The rise of the far-right has been happening across Europe as we see in Greece with Golden Dawn and France with the National Front. In the crisis where people are facing unemployment they can often look to scapegoat or blame people, like immigrants. Plus there is no party of the left explaining that it is not immigrants that are causing unemployment but rather ruling class policies. Unless you have a concrete analysis and are arguing for a different way forward people in their desperation will look to the far right, as happened in the 1930s.

The shame of the Labour Party is that they have made racist concessions to anti-immigrant sentiment in order to get votes. That is the most disgraceful thing. Any kind of response from any section of the left which does that, or goes down the road of saying British jobs for British workers is craven know-towing to racism.

What are the origins of the new Left Unity initiative to develop a new left party?

In November last year there was a day of coordinated strike action across the whole of Europe involving millions of people. For the first time the British TUC gave its support to that and there were protests in Britain. Many here have the view that the problem of austerity in Britain cannot be solved alone but we need to work together across Europe and globally.

In this context a number of people decided that we should draw together people in Britain who are interested in a new left project. We set up a Facebook page called "The November 14th Movement for Left Unity" to try to get the discussion going. Fairly rapidly it grew. We set up a website called Left Unity to be an open space for discussion and debate.

The film maker Ken Loach was just finishing his film "The Spirit of 45" which is about the founding of the welfare state in Britain. He connected with the website and thought it was a good place to locate his call to discuss a new party of the left which he issued in the context of his new film. So these things came together and as a result of Ken's appeal we had a remarkable response via the website with thousands of people signing up within days supporting

It was an appeal, but very rapidly over 90 local groups were set up to discuss the project. Left Unity was perceived not in the sense of welding together existing groups. On the contrary, most people want it to be a genuinely new party with individual membership.

We have had national meetings now and we are working towards the founding conference in November.

Over 8000 supporters signed on to support the project very quickly. Why do you think the response to the call was so strong?

People are so fed up with Labour. We are facing a disaster and Labour is joining in the attacks on ordinary people. So we have to have something different.

What type of party do you think Left Unity should be?

I can only give you my personal view. I think it should be a party of the left in the same way as Syriza in Greece, Die Linke in Germany, the Left Block in Portugal and Izquierda Unida in Spain are parties of the left. They are not social democratic formations, they are anti-capitalist but they are not self-defined as revolutionary parties in the Marxist-Leninist, Trotskyist or any other type of tradition.

The party should be socialist, feminist, environmentalist and opposed to all forms of discrimination. It should be informed by Marxism but not defined by it. It should have space for everybody on the left.

We have a vision of a transformed society, we are not ultimately talking about just wanting to reform capitalism but there are many practical things we need to do in the current context which are about regaining the reforms won under capitalism which benefited people, like the welfare state.

Over the past decade in Britain there have been a number of attempts to build a new left party. A number have either failed outright or stalled. How can Left Unity try to avoid the problems that have plagued other projects?

Firstly being an individual membership party not tied to any particular existing group or dominated or shaped by them. It has to be really conscious to do things differently. Things like saying we are feminist is not just lip service to equal pay for women, it has to be a whole different approach to how we function and operate to avoid the kind of gender bias we have seen in organisations across the left as well the whole of society. We have to put the rights of disabled members right at the centre.

One of the positive things that have been said about Left Unity is the way that disability rights have been a focus from the start.

Also to be open and democratic with effective structures of accountability. We have to do things differently and break from the mind sets of the small sects and groups that were the products of the cold war. We need to get beyond that. We don’t have the luxury of hanging around for some kind of ultra-left Noah's ark situation.

A decision was taken earlier on with Left Unity not to adopt a model where existing groups can affiliate. In past unity projects have given affiliates special rights such as the right to veto decisions. Can you envisage a scenario where affiliation without such conditions would be possible?

I can't see that scenario happening. It is hard to emphasise how much people are opposed to anything other than an individual membership model. My feeling is that when we found the party, if people like what they see they should just join it. I don't mind what people's background is if they decide genuinely to support Left Unity and join the party.

But to say "I want to be in Left Unity", while organising in another party and coming into Left Unity with a worked out agenda, well no.

If people have a view about what Left Unity unity should do, like for example more campaigning around the environment, well they should come to the conference and argue for that. But they shouldn't have to organise externally to bring that view into the party.

From GLW issue 972